U.S. to Join Iran Talks Over Nuclear Program

Posted in United States , Iran | 10-Apr-09 | Author: Mark Landler| Source: New York Times

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke in Isfahan on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said Wednesday that the United States would start participating regularly with other major powers in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The decision was a further step toward the direct engagement with Iran that President Obama has promised. It followed an invitation to Iran to join in a new round of talks, which would include Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. And it coincided with an unusual expression of conciliation toward the United States by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said Wednesday in a speech that his government would welcome talks with the Obama administration, provided that the shift in American policy was "honest."

The Bush administration largely shunned these European-led negotiations with Tehran; last July, it reluctantly sent a senior diplomat to a single round of talks that ended in stalemate.

Since then, Iran has continued enriching uranium, which it says is intended for nuclear energy but which is regarded by the United States and its allies as part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The administration's decision is the latest in a series of gestures to Iran, ranging from Mr. Obama's videotaped New Year's greeting to the Iranian people three weeks ago to an impromptu encounter last week between an Iranian diplomat and a presidential envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke.

"Pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "There's nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon."

The decision was presented Wednesday to the other countries at a meeting in London by William J. Burns, the State Department's third-ranking diplomat, who represents the United States in these negotiations. He also briefed them on the administration's broader Iran policy review, which is nearing completion, the State Department said.

By showing a readiness to engage Iran, American officials said, the administration is trying to build support among allies like Germany and France, and more skeptical players, like Russia, so that if diplomatic efforts fail, it can marshal support for tougher sanctions against Tehran.

The goal of any talks, the officials said, will still be to persuade Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium. While the clock is ticking, these officials said, the United States believes it can persuade Iran to halt its centrifuges before it becomes a "virtual nuclear state."

The White House also plans to start reaching out to Iran on a one-to-one basis, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the review was not yet public. There is evidence that the overtures are shaking up the Iranian leaders, officials and outside experts said.

"They sense that Obama is serious in trying a new track," said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, speaking in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying, "The Iranian people would welcome a hand extended to it if the hand is truly based on honesty." He added that "the change should be in action, not in words."

Despite the conciliatory tone, Iranian authorities on Wednesday charged an American-Iranian freelance journalist, Roxana Saberi, with spying, according to a senior judiciary official.

"She had been carrying out espionage activities under the cover of a journalist," the official, Hossein Haddad, told the ISNA news agency.

Ms. Saberi, 31, went to Iran six years ago and has worked for the BBC and National Public Radio. Her press credentials were revoked in 2006. She was arrested in early February, and authorities initially accused her of working illegally without a press card.

Her lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, said he had not seen the prosecutor's case but expressed hope he might be able to win her release on bail. Mrs. Clinton handed a letter to Iranian diplomats last week, pleading for the government's help in obtaining Ms. Saberi's release.

Mark Landler reported from Washington, and Nazila Fathi from Tehran. David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.